Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Last downtown movie theater -- Hippodrome bids farewell to glory

Cleveland Press February 29, 1980

Nostalgia just took another kick in the pants.

Nostalgia doesn't meet expenses.

The Hippodrome Theater is going to close -- this time definitely. No maybes. This is the end for the last downtown movie house.

The theater had a long and glorious history, but that was yesterday. There isn't much glorious about it today.

It has hung on, like a crippled giant. The theater remained in operation because the building was there and a building with an empty theater was as good as dead. And now the building has been declared terminal and the once proud showplace dies with it.

The yellowed clippings in newspaper libraries recount its splendid beginnings in 1907 -- its mammoth stage (130 feet wide, 104 feet deep, 110 feet high), its hydraulic lifts, a 455,000-gallon water tank, a tread mill so that horses could gallop and gallop and go nowhere.

Listed are the greats who played there -- Enrico Caruso, Harry Lauder, Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, Lillian Russell.

I don't know anyone who goes back that far. For most of us, memories of the Hippodrome in its heyday are about first-run movies, deep carpets, overflow crowds, a brilliantly lighted marquee.

Personally, the theater recalls that bunch of downtown movie houses that made movie reviewing an easy job -- a pleasant stroll from the office, then maybe running from one to another to catch the staggered showings of new films.

Then, in the late 60s, movies began opening in suburban theaters and, one by one, the giant picture palaces downtown began to close.

Committees were formed to save those old behemoths and they managed to prevent the wreckers from knocking down some of them.

Curiously, repeated announcements of the imminent demise of the Hipp (the announcements have been going on for a decade) brought no one forward to save the Hipp.

The Hippodrome, at 720 Euclid Ave., was not part of Playhouse Square. It was a maverick then and it has remained a maverick. There was no safety in numbers and only the Hipp stayed in business as a movie house. Its glories became a little shabby around the edges. When the air conditioning went out, it was replaced by six huge fans. When a spring broke through a seat the seat was repaired with a piece of what looked like oilcloth.

The big, famous movies opened elsewhere. The Hipp specialized in black films, action films, horror films.

A karate movie with Bruce Lee grossed $12,000 in one week. "Richard Pryor in Concert," arriving downtown a few months after it had played the suburbs, took in more than $15,000 in one week.

The house record was set with the 1964 James Bond movie, "Goldfinger" -- $50,000 in a single week when ticket prices were $1.50, half a buck for kids.

Because the Hipp is large (1,500 seats, main floor; 950, mezzanine) it cannot be run with the skeleton staff typical of the tiny, multi-screen suburban theater where one person sells you a ticket, rips it in half and makes a deal for popcorn.

There's a staff of 20 or so, fulltime uniformed security people, large heating bills. The theater has continued to do business but expenses have been staggering.

With vacant offices overhead and a few stores in operation alongside it was only a matter of time before allowing the building to stand remained more expensive than tearing it down. That's what happens after Aug. 31.

But I'll miss it. No more can I stroll from the office in the afternoon to review a movie. The fact that the lights at the back of the theater were kept on, although dimly, didn't bother me. It was easier to take notes.

The Hipp was the odd-theater-out when I started reviewing. It remains that way to the end.